By Tim Cole
Will the Metaverse be the new Internet, or will it be a flop like Second Life? This is far more than an academic question among nerds because it’s about money – a lot of money. In the last quarter alone, the Reality Labs division, which is working on the Metaverse, posted an operating loss of nearly $3.7 billion (currently 3.67 billion euros). Since the beginning of the year, a deficit of $9.4 billion has accumulated – on sales of $1.4 billion in the division.
So, did Mark Zuckerberg make a massive speculation when he renamed his company Facebook to Meta? No, said Dr. Thomas R. Köhler and Julia Finkeisen in their new book, “Chefsache Metaverse” – on the contrary!
The Metaverse has what it takes to be the “Next Big Thing.” Together with blockchain, cryptocurrencies, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and other technologies, it is at the heart of what the authors call “Web 3.0”, which they say will dramatically change the way we communicate, interact and ultimately live.
But doubts abound. As the authors admit, 74 percent of those surveyed in Germany in 1922 had never heard of the Metaverse. Only 3% could – by their admission – explain well what is meant by it at all. “Something to do with virtual reality” would probably be all that the majority of Germans would currently have to say on the subject.
Yet, the Metaverse is not all that new. The term was coined in 1992 in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash, in which humans interact with each other as programmable avatars and software agents in a three-dimensional virtual space that uses the metaphor of the real world.
The best possible combination of physical and virtual worlds, its supporters say, will allow us to live in the world behind the screen. In the future, we will invite our customers to meet in a virtual showroom, where they can see everything on their own. Virtual events, exhibitions, and marketplaces will bring us together without us having to get up from our office chairs. Hybrid workplaces will enable the benefits of remote work in the home office and mobile work with regular visits to the corporate office to collaborate with others. Sales meetings and product presentations can be conducted from the desk. Digital twins will revolutionize decision-making as a virtual representation of an object or system, along with real-time simulation and machine learning in enterprises.
Brave new world, then? Even though Köhler and Finkeisen are clearly holding back so as not to fall under the suspicion that they are merely stoking the hype about the Metaverse, they nevertheless seem to be convinced that something huge is brewing here.
But since German managers probably still lack the imagination to come up with concrete solutions for the Metaverse in everyday corporate life, they would prefer to take the dog to the chase. While, in the opinion of the author of this review, her book spends far too much time defining terms and looking back, it becomes really concrete – and interesting – from the halfway point. That is when it comes to concrete fields of application in individual business areas. Whether in retail, finance, production, logistics and distribution, the automotive or toy industry, or in travel and tourism: Wunderland is everywhere! Even the church and the art scene get their share of virtual reality, not to mention sex and dating. No area will be spared, the writers believe. And they are also getting down to the nitty-gritty.
Take retail, for example, German retailers are still keeping a low profile, but luxury brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dior are already heavily involved. Gucci has sold a virtual handbag on the Roblox platform for $4,100, and Louis Vuitton has launched a virtual game with quizzes, prizes, and surprises to mark the 200th birthday of its founder. The Japanese company ZoZo had developed a technology that allows customers to create a 3D model of their body at home. This was accurate to within a few e-millimetres, which provides the basis for a future shopping avatar that can visualize everything in detail from the drape of the folds to the fit of the sleeves of a T-shirt – perfect digital fit, that is.
Otherwise, however, the yield of concrete applications for Metaverse in retail is quite meagre – clearly because retail is still in its infancy. The authors have to fall back on older examples such as Ikea’s from 2022, where augmented reality (AR) allows users to erase their furniture from an uploaded photo and replace it with models from the Swedish furniture giant.
When it comes to the manufacturing industry, they unceremoniously replace the Metaverse theme with digital twins – not exactly new either, as they themselves admit. For quite some time now, the simulation of technical systems and even entire factories have been the subject of mostly talk, and rarely of action. If it is, then it is mostly about maintenance or early detection, for example where the Digital Twin can detect errors in good time, even before a failure occurs. The book does not discuss the exciting topic of “human digital twins”, where humans become part of the simulation, possibly utilizing a feedback loop, which could enable doctors, for example, not only to recognize diseases but also to treat them. But we’ll have to wait for the next edition for that.
Where the authors really shine with their knowledge, is in education and training. Indeed, there are concrete success stories to tell, such as the example of the US engineering service provider Honeywell, where experienced employees are connected with young colleagues through mixed reality headsets to pass on their experience remotely, or the Zurich police, which has allegedly already had 400 officers successfully complete VR training. Admitting that these VR and AR applications are basically just “Metaverse light”. But they supposedly clearly demonstrate the democratization of the underlying technologies, as well as the momentum behind this topic.
The author’s excursion into the area of online dating and cyber sex is appealing. Finally, online porn is gaining a significant boost thanks to VR and Metaverse. “Sex sells”: the old motto still applies. When the porn industry adopts a technology, insiders consider it a surefire sign of its imminent breakthrough. But the Metaverse also promises to revolutionize the world of dating. Just as speed dating in the flesh gave a massive boost to the matchmaking industry, especially in big cities, virtual get-to-know-you events could lend a whole new quality to sexual interaction in Web 3.0.
And when it comes to art, author Finkeisen, in particular, can draw on a wealth of experience. After all, in real life, she is head of the Vioventi company, which specializes in modern art and NFTs in the Metaverse. From the Metaverse museum to virtual art in the company, she builds a broad bridge of applications, some of which have already been realized. Artists gain entirely new forms of presentation and direct sales through the Metaverse; the gallery will have to rethink or adapt its business model, she asserts. Expertise and market knowledge will play a much greater role, and the advisory function for artists and collectors will possibly become the most important business model in the age of VR and NFTs. Interesting also her thoughts on the topic “Metaverse and the Good”, where she describes the “space for awareness” and the expansion of perspectives. For example, she cites artist Gabe Gault’s “I Am A Man” project, which created a large VR exhibition on Black History. “What is on the agenda in the artist’s work and in the everyday museum experience also works in the Metaverse. However, with immensely increased scope”, she says.
Köhler and Finkeisen have written a book that only partially fulfills the claim of being a guide through Web3. Currently, the world of the Metaverse is not really mature enough for this. Apart from the high hopes of its creators and the admittedly huge hype potential, there are simply not enough practical examples to guide an entrepreneur. What the book does excellently, however, is whetting the appetite for more. It remains to be seen what the coming years will bring. A lot depends on the answer – including the fate of Mark Zuckerberg and the company, which is inextricably linked to the Metaverse by its new name.
The Metaverse, its supporters say, will provide the best possible combination of physical and virtual worlds. It allows us to live in the world behind our computer screens. But do we really want this? And what are the practical uses?